Surfers are neat. Surfers are also cool, nervy, graceful, clear-eyed, four-square, uniformly lovely, thrifty, brave, reverent, kind and only slightly crazy. Try to fix these labels in your mind immediately, because the last time you may have noticed surfers were a pretty scruffy lot. Most of that has changed. Five weeks ago, at a California surfing awards ceremony, they came in tuxedoes and evening gowns. The new image has fallen upon them. Would you want your sister to marry one? May we see your sister first, please?
More than that, the next thing you know, surfing may become an Olympic event. If it does, it will come complete with red-white-and-blue surfboards, and there will be a great deal of patriotic parading about on the beaches and perhaps a few choruses of Give My Regards to Edwards, because Phil Edwards (see cover) is largely responsible for giving the sport its Jack Armstrong look.
Having fought its way out of the sociological swamps, the sport is now on a phenomenal surge across the U.S. Or, more correctly, all around the edges of the U.S., wherever the water is bumpy enough and in a lot of spots where there is barely a ripple. There are, as you read this, uncounted thousands of people standing on grounded surfboards with ripples lapping up around their ankles—looking rapturous. Surfing is a thing now. It is here.
The West Coast, where Edwards became famous, arrived years ago. California now has so many surfers that the people who make surfing movies shoot them in other locations just to get an uncluttered background. (Real surfers, surprisingly, sometimes appear in these movies. Edwards has been James Darren on the faraway shots, a trick that makes the In crowd hoot with laughter. In their bad old days the In crowd also tore up a drive-in movie or two.)
July 17, 1966
Along the scalloped coastline between Point Conception and the Baja peninsula, surfers ride board-to-board, a sunburned army in droopy drawers. Surfing Guide to Southern California estimates 285 surfing sites on the Coast, a figure that will dismay a lot of residents because many of the locations face private beaches.
Nonetheless, with all this, an even more surprising scene is taking place in the East. While most people were looking the other way, surfing has become perhaps the fastest-growing sport along the more than 1,500 miles of eastern seacoast and inlets. There are more than 50,000 eastern surfers, by ragged estimate, and Lord knows how many more who carry surfboards atop their cars as prestige props. These boards cost on the average $150 each. This fact is important, for the one sure path to status in this country is for a sport to become an Economic Factor.
"You must understand from the start that eastern surf is not all that good," says Bob Holland, co-proprietor with Pete Smith of the Smith and Holland Surf Shop in Virginia Beach, Va. "The continental shelf inhibits the wave. But our waves run about three feet through the year. They are fun to ride, great for hot-dogging—that is, performing tricks—and the East with its population centers is generating the enthusiasm." Both Smith and Holland are enthusiastic. They run their shop wearing shorts and breakaway sneakers, and when the surf is up they will march right out and reopen later when the water calms down.
"The East Coast may be the greatest training ground for future surfers," says Smith. "If they learn to ride well here, they are ready for Hawaii."
But preparing for Hawaii has become so much fun that not everybody will want to go. After Virginia Beach, which surfers consider one of the best in the East, there are other spots with eastern characteristics all their own, from Cocoa Beach, Fla. to Portland, Me.
At Virginia Beach, on a perfect day, the surfing zone is packed with little people just this side of puberty. Half of them are in the water by the Steel Pier, straddling their boards, waiting for the best waves to come curling in; the other half are standing in struck poses on the beach with boards under their arms, waiting for an opening. There are more than 2,000 boards in town on weekdays, and weekends bring many more.
Such crowds drive the lifeguards wild. "Someone is always getting zonked with a board," says one of them. "I have become the world's greatest head-patcher." From about 50 feet out on the water looking in, one has the scary sensation of getting ready to surf down the main stairway of Grand Central station into the 5:15 rush-hour crowd.
The reason for this jam-up is not that Virginia's surf breaks best down by the pier. It is that the rest of the beach is restricted to bathers, and the surfers are crammed into a 500-foot area—a typical eastern syndrome. But eastern surfers are getting more room all along the coastline.
In Miami, where the water does not exactly come thundering in, "the kids are crazy for surfing," says Joe Marci, a partner in Surfboard House, Inc. "I've seen them go out and ride a wave for about two or three feet. That's it. Then they ride again. We started here about two years ago in a little shack. Now we've got this place and a factory in Hialeah that makes our own boards. Four years ago there weren't four surfboards in Florida. Now we've got maybe 7,000 surfers, and 2,500 have their own boards. The rest rent them [at $1.50 an hour or $5.00 a day]. We've got three surfing beaches here now. One day this area had 31 boards stolen."
Not long ago in Miami, Disc Jockey Roby Yonge, who calls himself The Big Kahuna, ran a test by calling all surfers to rally at South Beach. More than 17,000 showed up. It was a wonderful mess.
Up north, station WKFD in Narragansett, R.I. calls itself "the summertime surfing station" and a surfing meet at Matunuck Beach in April drew 20,000 spectators. It was no fluke. Another 15,000 came on a cold, drizzling June 19 to watch the second annual New England championships at the beach.
Newport, R.I., which is understandably edgy about teen-agers, who have long regarded the town as Orgyville, also is gradually yielding to the new breed of surfers. State Recreation Inspector Roger Wheeler says, "Rhode Island will become the surfing center of the East Coast"—and he means it.
Farther down the line, Gilgo Beach on the South Shore of Long Island collects $1 per carload of surfers, and the new crowds have returned Babylon Township to the map after years of near obscurity. More than 4,000 surfers hit Gilgo Beach each weekend day. On the Jersey shores, most beaches are free to surfers—and surfing pioneer Les Reitman sells more than 100 boards a week in his three shops in Belmar, Ocean City and Sea Bright. In the 30 miles between Ocean City, Md. and Rehobeth Beach, Del. there are more than 2,500 surfers. At Kitty Hawk, N.C. not too long ago 20-year-old Tommie Truelove married Linda Jo Anne Poole, 19, in a surfing ceremony. He wore a blue T shirt with a competition stripe, and after the solemn rites the bridal couple strode back across the beach under an arch of crossed surfboards.
In the deep South, Florida's Cocoa Beach gets the most action, with an estimated 6,000 surfers scattered across the nine special zones along the 70-mile waterfront. Paul Jarrett, who owns the Canaveral Pier, says Brevard County surf shops sold 3,000 boards last year, will double that figure in 1966. So will every other eastern dealer. Smith and Holland, which sold 200 boards upon opening two years ago, already has sold 150 this year and may triple its business.
But why surfing? The reasons for the eastern boom would drive a market analyst wild. Forget analysis. "It isn't the waves," says Edwards. "Waves can't be the god of the sport. It is getting out in it that counts in the East."
And there is perhaps a better reason. Surfing has boomed because it is the quickest-stoking sport ever. While it often takes several lessons and some cold practice before one can learn to enjoy skiing, the first ride standing up on a surfboard—no matter how sloppily—is a wild, winging sensation. Slicing along the front of a wave evokes a feeling of rising from the sea to conquer the world. The water is alive with sparkle, and the surfboard makes a hissing sound like a thousand yards of tearing silk. The board cuts along at about 15 or 20 miles an hour, but the boil of the water makes it feel like 180.
People surf for two reasons, says Edwards, who is reflective about his sport. "When it started on the Coast not too many years ago, it was a form of rebellion. You see, people spend too much of their time today being spoonfed by organized society. Culture is injected. We get plugged into civilization whether or not we like it. Get on an airliner and they plug you in to a movie, so that you can't escape even at 30,000 feet.
"Kids in particular rebel against that sort of thing. They want something all their own. Sure, surfing was born of rebellion, and there was a certain amount of freestyle beer drinking and beach wrecking when it all caught on. You must remember that all kids are hell-raisers to a certain extent. But in surfing—as in anything else—talent will inevitably rise to the top. Now all the hell-raisers have abandoned the sport. A lot of them are stoked on motorcycling right now—and that sport is having trouble with its image. The new tendency in surfing is to calm down and surf. Surfers have now become citizens."
The other reason, according to Edwards, is that the mystique of surfing is a real generation-grabber. "There is an ultimate moment in surfing," he says. "It is the part the kids call the neat. It is being locked in on the curl of a wave. When you're shooting the curl you're full of life and you're full of whip and snap. The whole thing lasts only a few seconds, and it takes tremendous training to work up to it. It takes training and muscles you never heard of. Sometimes it will only happen to you once in a season. Ah, but that once!
"There is a moment when that big, hollow, motherless wave comes crashing down behind you, and it vibrates the whole ocean, and you think to yourself, 'I am, at this exact moment, bored in on life. Now I'm there? And you come out of it alive, and you're so stoked you can't stand it."
Consider the Banzai Pipeline—Edwards named it, because he is believed to be the first man to have ridden it, in 1961—a swirling tube of crashing wave on the north side of Oahu. In the summer months, when Hawaii is fed Southern Hemisphere swells, the water lies like a lake off Banzai Beach. But in the winter, storms from the north pump up mountainous seas that roll along unobstructed until they hit Hawaii, and then the Banzai surf comes hammering in with waves up to 30 feet.
"The Hawaiians were too smart to surf it," says Edwards, "because they had all skin-dived out there in the summer and had discovered that the bottom shoaled up suddenly with jagged coral too close to the surface. Anyone who fell off a board in the wrong place there could get hacked into little pieces by the grinding wave. I sat there on the beach and watched it for several days.
"The waves were about 15 feet high, and they formed a straight up-and-down wall. The tops came crashing over and formed a perfect curl. Beautiful. The teaser in all this is in looking up at a wave like that and knowing that if you're cool you'll get a hell of a ride. When you're ready to catch one of those mothers, you have to do a lot of things at once. Line up with something on the beach where you've plotted your course to miss the reefs. You can't be as little as three feet off. Then you go. Your instinct is to turn high on the wave because it drops steeply, like the side of a building, and you want to get off it. But you have to fight back the instinct and ride it straight down before you turn with it. Otherwise it will eat you up.
"Only the edge of your board is dug into the water at this moment, and if you lose your edge you fall off the world. The wave will come crashing down on you and pin you into the coral. But what the hell. It is 50% ability and 50% positioning anyhow. So I shoved off. I was so stoked you wouldn't believe it.
"I have never told anyone the rest of this. But when I got to the bottom, I cut back, rode the wave back up and got inside the curl and it closed completely around me. I was completely dry inside there. My God, you could have driven a truck through it!
"It was all light green and crystal and shining. Like a cathedral. It was everything, all at once. Back to the womb. At one point I actually put my shoulders against that inner wall of water and leaned on it. It held me up. Wild! And then the wave suddenly began to collapse behind me. It came like an explosion, and the whole ocean shook. I felt a surge of water come squirting through between my arms and then between my legs, and then the wave just sort of spit me out the other end. I was out of it safe. I was so jazzed I just went limp—blaaah—and fell off my board.
"By the time I got to the car I looked back at the Pipeline and there were already three guys out there, ready to try it."
That sort of ride—the big stoker—is behind Edwards now. He has become, at 28, the Manolete of the sport, the image, the final style-setter for the thousands who watch him at work on a board. "Phil Edwards is so great," says George Fisher of Gilgo Beach, "that he could ride in with a paper bag over his head and you would know instantly who it was."
Yet they all laughed when Edwards first sat down to play. For one thing, he began surfing in 1948 with a 90-pound mahogany board—he weighed only 98 pounds himself—rolling it over and over across the Oceanside Beach to get it into the water. "I would surf every day before school," he says, "and rush to my homeroom late and soaking wet. Everybody thought I was nuts. No football. No basketball. Just surfing. Then I began to take Wednesdays off from school to surf, because it broke up my week."
By the time the sport finally caught on, Edwards had already arrived. During 1953, in a debut at Dana Point, Calif., he went out on 13-foot waves that spooked older surfers and brought crowds of spectators to the beach as he cut nonchalantly back and forth in a style that was to set the pattern. It was the start of an era. When Surfer Magazine polled thousands of readers to select the world's best, Edwards won by a mile.
Now that he is history's youngest Big Daddy of an established sport, Edwards exercises the touch of artist that seethes within him as the chief designer for Hobie Surfboards, Inc. Hobie produces 6,000 custom surfboards a year, the Cadillacs of the surfing world. And for absolute purists, Hobie turns out Phil Edwards signature models—which the company figures makes Edwards a sort of watery Arnold Palmer.
Hobie Alter, who began all this by building a board in his garage in 1950, points to his production direction as one key to the East Coast boom. "Now 70% of our boards go to the East Coast shops," he says. "Smith and Holland, our biggest individual eastern dealer, Reitman's Manatee Sea shops in Jersey and Emilio's shops on Long Island all outsell our Hawaiian outlet."
A few weeks ago in Virginia Beach—surrounded by knots of kids who were telling each other, "Know who that is? That's Phil Edwards, that's who it is"—Edwards conducted a quick instructional on how to get prestoked, fully pumped and really jazzed on East Coast surf (following pages). The Virginia Beach season runs from mid-March through November, although the later weeks of it tend to be blue-knee-and-knuckle weather. But East Coast surf, when it is running, "can be more fun than anyplace else," says Edwards, who may have a future in the diplomatic corps when he hangs up his board.
"I have been called the best surfer in the world," Edwards said recently, "but I don't know. I think maybe the best surfer in the world right now is some little kid whose name nobody knows—maybe nobody will ever know his name—who is riding out there by himself. Locked in some curl somewhere, having the ride of his young life. He knows how it feels, and I know how it feels. It is being unplugged from life for just a second. God, it's the neatest thing."
EDWARDS ON SURFING: HOW TO GET LOCKED IN ON LIFE
This is not surfing made easy—nothing makes surfing easy. But the rewards of wave riding, to Phil Edwards and anyone who takes the trouble to learn, make it worth all the effort. For paddling out, Edwards demonstrates the two styles in photographs 1 and 2. In either position, weight must be slightly aft to control the board—note how the nose clears the wave. Catching the wave (3) is the trickiest part. Edwards slides slightly forward, paddles furiously ahead of the surf until the back of the board cants up. "Now." he says, "you are not being pushed along by the wave, as many think. Instead, you are actually sliding down the hill." The next step is crucial.
Standing up on a surfboard can be a slippery business, but surfers apply a heavy coating of paraffin across the deck for traction. Edwards rides the front shoulder of the wave, then quickly rises (4) and pulls his feet under him. The idea, he says, is to stand centered—legs apart and flexed. Surfing's classic stance is a crouch (5), one shoulder forward. Either foot forward will do, although surfers say the left foot is proper, call the right the "goofy" one. Moving about on the board (6), Edwards is trimming it to pick up more ride. Simple physics applies here: standing toward the front will get more wave under the back; side stances will make the board turn. Hanging ten—riding with one's toes over the bow—Is considered hot surfing stuff but is nothing for a starting surfer to try. At this point, it is fun—not form—that counts. The stylish touches will come later.
After several rides, the average starter is ready to carve out turns. Edwards leans strongly right (7), placing his weight on the rear leg. The design of the board, plus its skeg (rudder) will take care of the rest. But all this is strictly preliminary to shooting the curl (8), a maneuver considered the absolute end by surfers. Riding close up alongside the wave, Edwards bends over and thrusts his head into it. "It gives you," he says, "a feeling of being locked in on life." Curl-shooting on the East Coast can be exhilarating, although the waves are seldom big enough—as they are in Hawaii—to completely envelop the surfer. But the effect is still strange, like shooting through a waterfall. Finally, most riders finish with a flourish—leaning back in a kick-out (9) as the wave diminishes. It saves that long paddle back out there.